Pictured above: Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered in 1998.
For 20 years, transgender people have honored slain members of their community by holding vigil every November 20.
For many, the day has become a deeply somber and painful way to mark the passage of time. Twenty-two transgender people have been murdered on-record this year, nearly all of them transgender women of color. But what is now largely seen as a community funeral actually started as a protest against the media’s misgendering of transgender women.
On November 28, 1998, Rita Hester, a transgender woman in Allston, Massachusetts, was found dead—stabbed 20 times—in her first-floor apartment. Journalist Samantha Allen, then writing for The Daily Beast, noted in a 2017 article that The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald referred to Hester as a man when first reporting her death. Hester was “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes,” stated The Globe.
But it was it was the queer media’s failure to honor Hester as a woman that truly struck a nerve. Local LGBTQ paper Bay Windows repeatedly misgendered Hester in 1998 and insisted on calling her “a man.” Jeff Epperly, then-editor of the paper, describes his coverage of Hester’s murder at that time as “entirely indefensible.”
“I thought I had the lofty goal of defending journalistic independence,” Epperly tells NewNowNext. “After much-needed back-and-forth with trans community members, and simply educating myself by reading on my own, I eventually came to what ended up being the only defensible position—Rita was [who] she was: a woman living as a woman who had the right to be whatever she said she was.”
In 1995, three years before Hester’s murder, 23-year-old transgender woman Chanelle Pickett was also murdered in Boston. Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender woman living in San Francisco, couldn’t help but see the similarities between the two women after Hester’s death: Both were black trans women murdered in Boston in late November.
“That was the moment that I went, ‘We need to be looking at that. We need to see how many of us are being killed. Why are we being killed?’ Smith previously told LGBTQ outlet Into. “Because we have no knowledge of what’s going on. Frankly, it angered me.”
Smith created the Remembering Our Dead project to honor trans homicide victims.
In 1999, San Francisco and Boston held vigils in honor of Hester, which would become the first Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). They chose November 20, the day of Pickett’s death.
Both Smith’s project and the TDOR vigils marked a turning point for transgender communities that had watched media law enforcement erase their humanity for decades by misgendering them. While many now think of TDOR as a moment of defeat and sorrow for trans communities worldwide, its history suggests a different narrative. As transgender blogger Monica Roberts notes, Hester’s murder challenged the Associated Press to update its style guide to use names and pronouns consistent with how trans people lived in 2006.
“But the one thing that can’t be changed is the fact that a beautiful trans woman’s life was snuffed out by someone in 1998,” Roberts wrote of the murder. “TDOR ensures that we will never forget that.”